This article first appeared in this edition of the Salisbury Review
There is no longer anyone pure enough in mind to present the Oscars 2019. Of all the actors in the world none can be trusted to have enough virtue to be worthy of the honour. In December Kevin Hart, an actor and comedian, was invited to do it, he seemed to fit the bill entirely as he is black, but pulled out forty-eight hours later, accused of making homophobic comments, nine years earlier. He thought again about his decision in January, but outrage at his ‘insincere’ apology made him retreat for good.
Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, famous for his money-making violent films, certainly won’t be invited to take over. After his recent remarks about wanting to kill a black man, forty years ago, after the rape of a friend, he is unlikely ever to work in La La Land again. His disgrace is international. A shocked BBC news reporter commented that, so far, ‘there hadn’t even been an apology’.
On BBC Radio 4 arts commentator Stig Able not only wanted an apology, he said, but that, in the words mothers once used for naughty children, Neeson must ‘really mean it’. But how can Neeson ever atone for such erring thoughts? As the Daily Mirror said simply: ‘Shame is not enough’.
Disgraced people once used to make a walk around their town, wearing sackcloth and ashes and wailing. In 1483, Jane Shore, a mistress of King Edward IV, had to walk through the City of London in her underwear as a punishment for harlotry. Sadly, nowadays there is no such ritual. A ‘walk of shame’ is just part of a TV game show. Perhaps the BBC could invent something new and truly shaming for our age?
In future help may come from algorithms. Professor Shoshana Zuboff told the BBC this week that democracy and liberty are under threat as capitalism and the digital revolution combine forces. We who worry about public virtue might see this another way; we may rejoice to think that soon the smart machines now mining our minds for data, may also be able to change our behaviour in the process. In future smart machines, maybe controlled by Google or Amazon, will monitor and control social behaviour, enforcing correct behaviour without any need for human agency.
It is often unnerving how much detail of our lives is shared. If you take up painting in acrylic rather than oils, you will suddenly get on-line messages offering bargains. Presumably from information traced from credit card exchanges. More disturbingly, if you think about perhaps trying some internet dating, you will immediately receive adverts, many of them scams, from lonely hearts companies.
Our wallets and our minds seem to be monitored. Of course, I don’t mind this because I’m a virtuous person with nothing to hide. Besides, as hate crimes become a police priority, it’s obvious that we still do a good enough job of policing ourselves in the good old-fashioned way; listening, spying and reporting.
Many of us felt let down last October by Graham Linehan, the writer of Father Ted, an offensive series which could not be screened now, who had to be given a verbal harassment warning by police after a complaint from transgender activist Stephanie Hayden that he’d referred to her as he, a new and dire crime well worthy of police time.
Many of us will also have noted last month that Harry Miller, a docker from Humberside, was visited by police over a limerick on Twitter which the police decided was a ‘hate incident’ against transgendered people. Miller’s retweet questioned whether transgender men are biological women. It included the lines: ‘Your breasts are made of silicone; your vagina goes nowhere.’
Even though no crime was committed, not even against poetry, sharing that was recorded as a ‘hate incident’. When Miller questioned why the complainant was described as a ‘victim’ if no crime had been committed, a PC told him: ‘We need to check your thinking’. ‘Check’ in the old-fashioned sense of stop and correct.
Yesterday I was tempted to start using this surveillance service myself for the first time but my heart was not pure in doing it. A young black man got on our bus, occupied downstairs by four elderly ladies including me, and began making alarming, to me, noises at the back – subconscious racism? I moved to stand near the driver. The man followed me, shouting, ‘Look at the road not at me, Blood-clot’.
Did he mean me or the driver? ‘Blood-clot’ is a male Caribbean term for women. He pushed past and began screaming, ‘Batty-boy’ (Caribbean term for gay men) at the driver. He decided he wanted to get off but the driver refused to open the door until we reached a bus stop. He was then reviled with ‘Sodomite’ and ‘faggot’.
‘Let him off,’ I whispered to the driver who ignored me as we sat in a traffic jam. By then along with ‘faggot’ we had the ‘C’ word said so loudly that people on the pavement were looking. Among them I saw two police support officers, a rare sight.
‘Let him off,’ I begged as I decided to get off and report him for homophobic abuse. I would use the system to try to punish him.
The driver did not open the door. The policemen disappeared. Eventually we reached our bus stop. People came downstairs looking scared. The driver put his head down on his arms for a moment. I rubbed his shoulder and congratulated him on putting up with such a tirade of abuse without flinching.
My thoughts in wanting to report the youth were mixed; I wanted the violent man to be stopped from behaving in that way, but also to see what the police would do about it. I was reporting homophobic abuse, a correct thing to do; but my impure mind suspected that they would be reluctant to act as the culprit was black, so I was being racist and I could not trust my hostility to the enraged man. I just thank God the driver refused to let me fall into the possibility of sin.
Mary Sydney is a social commentator.